I have been a professor in the theology department at Whitworth University for the past sixteen years. Most of my students think I am a good teacher. I know that because they tell me so and because they write sweet things in their course evaluations. But with every year that passes, I become more acutely aware of my weaknesses and more in touch with the ways I fail them.
Anyone who claims to have mastered the art of teaching the Christian faith is a fool. No one possesses the necessary knowledge, wisdom, eloquence, or imagination. Anyone who doesn’t find it strange that he or she should be the one to stand in front of a group of people and talk about God is either deluded or hasn’t thought very deeply about what is happening. My guess is that many teachers recognize this. We know we’re not up to the challenge, and so we wonder, “Okay, well now what?”
We’ve been given an impossible task. We want students to know God—not merely to know about God, but to know God personally. We want them to engage with Scripture, doctrine, art, history, philosophy, and plenty of other things, but knowledge of those things is not our ultimate goal—or at least it shouldn’t be. In the midst of all this, we hope our classrooms become places where students encounter the living God—places where they become contemporaneous with Christ, to use Søren Kierkegaard’s way of speaking.
According to Kierkegaard, the goal of theological study is not merely to understand but “to exist in what one understands,” and that kind of knowledge is not something teachers can engineer in their students, nor can students realize it on their own. It depends ultimately on God himself.
But if teachers are incapable of accomplishing our most basic task, of achieving our most important goal, shouldn’t that shape the way we teach? And if so, how? If Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, if he reveals God to us and us to ourselves, if “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1:20), then how should that influence the way we think about teaching the Christian faith? In other words, how do we develop a specifically Christian approach to teaching Christian theology?
The task of teaching theology falls not only to folks like me who teach in universities or seminaries but also to the countless pastors, parents, Christian educators, and study group leaders who teach the Christian faith in a wide variety of contexts. By the grace of God, we sometimes participate in the spiritual movement of disturbance, awakening, and renewal through which people come to see and embrace who they are in Christ. But we are never in control of this process. If the truth is not something a teacher possesses, the truth is not something a teacher dispenses—no matter how gifted one happens to be. God alone reveals God.
Thankfully God chooses to do so through human witnesses, but the effectiveness of our teaching depends ultimately on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. God is the primary teacher in our classrooms: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Thus our teaching will be successful, at least in the deepest sense of that word, only when the Spirit uses it to make God known to students.
Many of us who teach Christian theology are keenly aware of the poverty of our language in comparison to the reality of God. We try our best to speak truthfully and faithfully, but our words often seem thin and unreal, they taste like ashes on our tongues, and we wonder if our teaching will add up to anything more than wasted time. In extreme cases, this trajectory of thought and feeling can lead to a deadening acedia that takes root within us and leaves us hopeless or in despair.
But an awareness of our dependence on the Spirit moves us in the opposite direction. It eases the pressure by displacing the teacher from the center of the educational process. It relativizes our weaknesses. It does not eliminate them, and it certainly does not excuse them, but it assures us that God rises above them. And this awareness becomes an essential source of freedom and joy for those who believe and depend on it, whereas for those who do not, teaching can become a burden too heavy to bear—at least for teachers who want their students to know God personally.
Our confidence that God will reveal himself to students is grounded not in our own competence, character, or powers of persuasion, but in God’s desire to be known and in the eloquent presence of the risen Christ, who makes himself known in the power of the Spirit.
If this is true, if knowledge of God and the obedience of faith are gifts of divine grace, then prayer is the sine qua non of teaching Christian theology—the essential pedagogical practice. Augustine expressed this in a formulation that cannot be improved upon: “Let one be a pray-er before being a speaker.”
Teaching in a context that does not permit public prayer is certainly not an exception to this rule, since in that case one would simply pray in silence and outside of class. No matter the context, the effectiveness of our teaching depends ultimately on a movement of the Spirit of God. Kierkegaard’s observation about the Christian life in general certainly applies to teaching Christian theology: “To need God is our highest perfection.”
But we must also reckon with the fact that the Spirit does not have to move in our classes. While our need is absolute, God is under no obligation to make use of our teaching. To assume otherwise is to presume upon his grace, which is why prayer is so urgently necessary. And notice—the call is not merely to think about prayer, or to agree that prayer would be a good idea, but actually to spend time asking the Spirit to act in our classes.
Consider the pedagogical implications of this claim. The freedom of the Spirit of God implies that there are no fail-safe strategies capable of guaranteeing success in the classroom, no foolproof rhetorical methods for us to learn, and certainly no “instruments” for quantitatively assessing the effectiveness of our teaching that would appease the accreditors.
No matter how skilled or industrious we are, there is no guarantee that our teaching will amount to anything more than wasted time. What worked yesterday might not work today, and what works tomorrow might never work again. A Christian teacher, writes Karl Barth, “cannot continue to build today in any way on foundations that were laid yesterday by oneself, and one cannot live today in any way on the interest from a capital amassed yesterday. One’s only possible procedure every day, in fact, every hour, is to begin again at the beginning.”
To use this as a pretext for excusing pedagogical incompetence would be to miss the point entirely. Of course pedagogy matters; everyone knows that. But competence alone is not enough, since “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
It has become clear that the future of teaching Christian theology in this country is not in universities. Most universities have long since ceased to offer classes in Christian doctrine taught by Christian theologians in distinctly Christian ways. The number of universities in America where it is possible to take classes in Christian theology from a professor who openly confesses belief in the truth of God’s self-revelation in Christ, and who attempts to teach in a way that is faithful to that reality, is smaller than perhaps many Christians realize. (The lack of such institutions largely explains why so many excellent theologians have no prospect of a tenure-track university position.)
Meanwhile, the church sinks deeper into its educational crisis, one where most Christians have trouble articulating even the most basic Christian doctrines, and where they receive very little if any training to think creatively about the difference Christian theology makes for navigating ordinary life. And this at a time when Christians in the Western world are encountering more persuasive counter-narratives about the meaning of human existence than they have for a very long time.
But teaching the Christian faith has never been easy, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead defies despair. Yes, we face new and pressing challenges, but it would be a mistake to conclude that our task is more difficult today than it has always been. In one way or another, the church has always struggled to teach faithfully, creatively, and persuasively. And in any case, the Spirit alone has the power to awaken people to the love of God in Christ—to draw people into communion with the one in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
Which is why progress in the art of teaching necessarily includes progress in the art of prayer.
Adam Neder is the Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. He has been voted Most Influential Professor by four senior classes.
His latest book is Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith, from which this essay is adapted. Used by permission from Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group copyright 2019.
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